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Transgender Radio Jockey Shanthi Sonu has suffered stigma in the past as a transgender first, and as a sex worker later. Now, she holds her head up high in a career that gives her happiness.
It was a kind of flashback of sorts for me to have met RJ Shanthi Sonu this week. As I prepared myself to meet this brave individual who has been exceptional in her journey, Shanthi Sonu came out from her studio doors of Radio Active, a community radio station in Bangalore, where she works as a radio jockey. Radio Active has had the distinction of being the first urban community radio station in Bangalore.
Shanthi Sonu was constantly smiling and perhaps eager to meet her interviewer. She is someone who has had to face a number of hardships but hadn’t given up something called ‘hope’. Now in her thirties, Shanthi was earlier known as Shankar for 19 years of her life before she decided to take a stand and change her identity to the one she most closely associated with her soul. She underwent the surgery required to become a woman and yet her fate for a long period of time hadn’t changed.
Her face and eyes turn blood red when she talks of her professional identity prior to being a Radio Jockey. Shanthi was a sex-worker for ten long years and now she says the tone, attitude of people around and everything much has changed for good in her life.
“I was born in a family that had extreme poverty. My father practically didn’t have a job and was alcoholic and my mother was a domestic worker. I distinctly remember that I would love to draw rangoli in front of our house. My mother would often dissuade me saying it was a girl’s responsibility or chore. Boys shouldn’t be drawing rangolis. Instances like these made me feel more feminine. I always enjoyed being in the company of girls.”
As I question Shanthi on how she is able to speak fluently in English considering her education was far from completed. She says, “I have to thank my mom for sending me to a school who had a brilliant English teacher. The school was a very ordinary one but the teacher ensured I learnt the language. I am still in touch with her, “she says with a glint of pride.
“But I didn’t pursue my studies further beyond class IX. Transgenders have practically no option in the country today. They are forced to resort to begging or sex work which is extremely unfortunate.
When I was growing up, my younger brother would often have nasty arguments with me and tell me and my mom that his friends would tease him on having an older sibling who behaved weirdly and differently, was girlish and so on. I think it was always a fight within myself to understand the ‘real me’. I do feel I was trapped in the wrong body. Today I do not want to identify myself as a transgender, but more as a woman” she says as she goes into moments of silence for sometime.
“When I was 19 years, I made my family sit down and told them that I wanted to live my life in a different way and not as a man. They just wouldn’t understand or accept the situation. They threatened me of mass suicide and said I have been behaving abnormally for many years and perhaps marriage would solve the problem.”
“So soon after, I was even made to go through the situation of seeing a girl like it is done in arranged marriages. So when the girl and her family were there at our place, we got time to talk and be alone. I thankfully indicated to her that even if we get married society will look at me very differently. I didn’t say I felt like a transgender at that time. The truth was I didn’t even realize my true identity for many years. Anyway that marriage didn’t happen.”
“After leaving my family, thereafter, I found myself in a job at a medical store of being a cleaner and sweeper. It was a transgender who passed by the store who asked me to join them and made me understand what was happening to me. The transgender community is a completely different world and isolated too. There are a few distinct who are trying to break the shackles and uplift the community but most are left to dust and die.”
When asked on how did she get a job as a radio jockey in a community radio station? Shanthi says, “I was somehow involved with a NGO called Sangama in Bangalore and they had once asked me to share something from my experiences. My inspiration, Akkai Padmashali and Pinky Chandran from Radio Active were present in the audience. Apparently they were moved by what I had recited as a poem on my experiences and journey and they offered me a job at Radio Active. It isn’t a job. It’s a new life that I love completely” she gushes.
Talking about the discrimination for transgenders she says, “I always listen to voices like ‘hijra’, chakka’ behind my back. It is only when I turn back and stare sternly do I feel that those eyes and voices have faded quietly.”
Shanthi gets emotional when she shares a harrowing experience, an incident that really questioned her on her choice to continue as a sex worker.
“One night when I was waiting for customers I was gang raped by 7 men in the outskirts of the city, in a forest. I was pleading them and begging them to leave me but they just continued with the atrocities. I even requested them to use condoms kept in my bag, but they just didn’t want me to speak anything. They completely abused my soul more than anything. With some alertness, I managed to escape from there and reach home. But that incident made me feel too vulnerable and I kept asking myself if I wanted to die out of a life though this situation,” she says with tears firmly fixed in her eyes.
“I felt as if there was no purpose, no meaning for my life. I felt helpless until I had the identity of being an RJ. Today when listeners call up or when I meet different people who applaud me for what I have done, I feel very happy.”
“I run a show which talks on the lives of sex-workers, their issues journey of these people. I also feature cookery shows and other variations on radio.”
She talks with pride as she mentions, “The bag which used to carry a pack of condoms today holds a recorder and a mike.”
When asked if she ever wanted to go to a movie or restaurant and experience the freedom like other people in the society she quickly responds, “Earlier too, I would order pizzas online and have enjoyed the experience. I have walked into movie theaters and when questioned I have shown them the ticket that I have purchased. Yes I have pulled along my other transgender friends too. Why should simple joys and pleasures be away from our lives?” she questions.
“Public spaces, forums and platforms are very much essential to voice out the issues of sexual minorities. We all want respectable jobs and it is up to the society to accept and open its doors for us. It is so very easy to ridicule than to empower.”
On her personal front, RJ Shanthi Sonu says, “I am in touch with my mother and brother too. They have accepted me since the time I have this new identity for myself. Being a sex-worker was past, this is my present. Hoping my future will be even brighter. My younger brother helped me to buy this laptop.” she shows me excitedly.
Shanthi loves listening to old Tamil, Kannada and Hindi songs. She does her shows primarily on Thursdays and Fridays. Her favourite movie is Titanic and her favourite quote is from former President, A.P.J Abdul Kalam, ‘Dreams is not that which you see while sleeping, it is something that does not let you sleep.’
Radio Active on CR 90.4MHz reaches to a radius around 15 kms but has managed to carve its space with its loyal listeners who want to know on various programs like on mental health, slum dwellers, sex-workers, their rights, concerns and more.
As I get up to leave the studio after meeting RJ Shanthi’s other colleagues, she tells me how a few activists too got in touch with her when she tweeted about a transgender who had been raped abroad, “Are we, transgenders an easy target?” caught the attention of a few activists who have since become her friends. She feel it is important to use technology wisely and try to connect and uplift others too in her community.
Shanthi Sonu is not the first transgender radio jockey, but she has enough confidence and voice to express the faceless and silent voices who are unheard in the crowd.
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Images source: Reshma Krishnamurthy Sharma.